Liberalisation of strategic depth — I

Originally published in Daily Times on Monday September 12, 2011 as my weekly column BAAGHI

On the tenth anniversary of 9/11, all we have in our hands is 35,000 graves, no state writ in 40 percent of our territory and our flippant, time-tested policy of ‘strategic depth’. First connoted by General Ayub Khan, vague references to the idea could be found in the statements of Pakistani leaders earlier too. Despite the ‘Muslim’ card that Pakistan used for its origins, it could not attract an immediate recognition from a Muslim Afghanistan in 1947 (which became one of the earliest nations to establish diplomatic relations with Pakistan in 1948). The overused concept of strategic depth (SD) has proven to be not only counterproductive but also damaging to Pakistan’s own interests in the region.

The rhizome of Pakistan’s paranoia has been its irascible relations with neighbouring India. After breaking away from it in 1947, subsequent developments like the distribution of assets between two ‘siblings’, border disputes — especially in Kashmir that ended up in Pakistan’s support to tribal insurgency to take over Kashmir in early 1948 — set the tone of relations between the two countries. The bitterness was further exacerbated by Pakistan’s continuous attempts to gain control in Kashmir; Operation Gibraltar that resulted in a war in 1965; and the situation in East Pakistan, which was exploited by India through its support to insurgency. This got imprinted in Pakistan’s psyche and has become inerasable due to the shock of losing its arm while completely refusing to acknowledge its own follies that caused the secession of East Pakistan.

A political audit of SD policy suggests that we made a mess of regional peace and Pakistan’s persona internationally by pursuing this mindless policy. Using Islamic identity while putting the Pashtun identity aside just to avoid Afghanistan pursuing the demand for ‘Pashtunistan’, we have made a complete klutz of ourselves. Important to remind here is that no Afghan government has ever recognised the Durand Line as a legitimate international border, not even that of the Taliban, after all those efforts of gaining strategic advantage in Afghanistan. Also, Afghanistan had always sided with Pakistan before the SD policy — be it the 1948 tribal insurgency, 1965 war or in 1971. It not only announced the no-attack-from-the-west policy and let Pakistan move its forces from its western to eastern borders to counter the Indian offensive but also refused its airspace to be used by India.

After supporting an insurgency against Daud Khan in 1973, we kept on feeding the insurgents and played a key role in establishing warlords like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and his Hizb-i-Islami, later to be used in the Afghan jihad in the 1980s with US and Saudi money. The cost of jihad that Pakistan had to pay remains unfathomable even after two decades, which remains unquestioned. In the post-jihad years, Pakistan struggled to come out of a quagmire of problems like hosting refugees, drug trafficking, smuggling and economic sanctions imposed on it.

Bringing up, rearing and fostering the Taliban had not been without consequences either. Even during the peak ‘strategic depth’ years from 1996 to 2001, Pakistan was not the most secure country. We earned depth in Afghanistan, so did the Taliban and religious extremists in our territory. The resultant extremism has proven to be more formidable an enemy than India, which we wanted to counter through the SD policy. During their rule in Afghanistan, the Taliban had started demanding shariah rule in Pakistan, in addition to fuelling and exporting sectarianism, especially the anti-Shia sentiment that spread across bordering Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and areas of Balochistan.

We had already earned a negative sentiment from the non-Pashtun minorities of Afghanistan, which pushed them to seek support from foreign backers like India, Iran, Russia, Turkey and Uzbekistan. Its support to the Taliban put Pakistan in an awkward position internationally, who had now started shaping our foreign and defence policies indirectly. They became masters in effect, rather than ‘slaves’. No wonder our army was termed as a rogue army in the international press. Afghanistan became an irreversible case of insurgencies and civil war doing nothing but fanning the fires of sectarianism and religious extremism in bordering areas of Pakistan as well as strengthening the security paranoia in Pakistan’s political and security establishment. Hail strategic depth!

Even stranger is the fact that after decades of turmoil, we are still not ready to let go of the curse called strategic depth. Much has already been written about the latest Jinnah Institute-USIP report on the Afghan endgame; I would only refer to its content without traducing the authors and participants of brainstorming sessions, most of whom have an unblemished record of being socially progressive people. The report does not claim to be an academic research work or a consensus document, with an intriguing title: ‘Pakistan, the United States and the End Game in Afghanistan: Perceptions of Pakistan’s Foreign Policy Elite’.

Stranger than the contemptible term ‘endgame in Afghanistan’ is the adjective given to the expert participants of the report: ‘foreign policy elite’. It reminds one of a paper written by Peter R Lavoy for the US Defence Threat Reduction Agency back in 2006. It elaborates the concept of ‘strategic culture’, which is developed by continuous hammering of certain strategic notions to the level of myth making. These myths are then sold to the intelligentsia to get their nod for legitimising a particular ‘strategic culture’, which is then used to shape a country’s strategic and defence policies. I see a strange parallel between Lavoy’s ‘strategic culture’ and USIP/JI’s ‘foreign policy elite’. But it is encouraging that not only the US but Pakistan also has started recognising the importance of liberal discourse, so much so that a stamp of (social) liberals is needed to legitimise strategic options that the countries might take or might persuade other countries to take.

But the worrying fact is that this ‘non-consensus’ document does not contain a dissenting discourse on the topic. The authors have preferred to limit themselves to the statement of a predominant ‘strategic depth’ turned ‘national interest’ narrative with very little difference in spirit. What the report says is precise and covers many aspects of the issue. My immediate response is on two points for the time being: Pakistan must have a role in the ‘endgame’ and future settlement in Afghanistan; and in order to avoid domestic Pashtun resentment in Pakistan, the Taliban should be given a role in the post-NATO set-up. How is it different from our paranoid India-centric military establishment? If it is not, can we say that the report is mere regurgitation of the stated position of Pakistan’s military establishment, using the shoulders of credible progressive elements of Pakistan’s intelligentsia?

One also wonders who made a selection of the narrative to be included in the final ‘non-consensus’ document? Is it not unfair to the potential dissenters in the list of participants that their narrative is selectively kept out of the report? Where is the diversity of Pashtun opinion on this issue that we cannot miss in our interactions at home? Meeting Afzal Khan Lala, a stalwart of the Awami National Party (ANP) from Swat, just two months ago, I could not hear the storyline as is described in the report. Reason being, the report fails to bring out the full picture around the issue.

What, however, is commendable is that the job of initiating a debate in the mainstream media is well done. The credit goes to Jinnah Institute for proposing and advocating the idea to USIP, a welcome initiative from both. But the need for a shadow report on the official narrative about the Afghan settlement issue cannot be overemphasised. The holders of alternative opinion must brainstorm the issue and spell out a counter-narrative.

(To be continued)